Saturday, March 25, 2017


There is a point you reach before sending a work off to its life in print where you're not quite satisfied with the result nor are you confident one more close read through will offer a clue to the missing element. At such times, you reach for the device most favored by the arsonist.

What you're looking for isn't mentioned by name in any book about composing fiction, least of all in any of your writings on the subject. If you know anything at all about the process of storytelling, you know how open the medium is to the migration of useful concepts from other disciplines. 

You like to tell yourself you were on that very track when you noted the common bond shared by the writer, the dancer, the musician, and the photographer. All of these worthies manipulate time to their advantage, whether it is the length of a note in a musical piece, the shutter speed in a photograph, the pose held by a dancer, the life event extended or compressed by the storyteller.

Your common ground with the arsonist is the accelerant, the medium the arsonist uses to speed up the intensity and range of the fire. Your narrative may lack some degree of inevitability crashing to the ground as though a juggler had dropped his display items. It may progress at a jog when it should be more of a gallop. The culprit in your narrative maybe something as innocent as a sense of awareness being regarded as an insight rather than a life-changing revelation.

Your favorite arrival point in your reading of the work of sister and brother writers, long dead or less than half your present day age, is the moment when you understand you are not where you wish to be, within a narrative you cannot possibly abandon. Such narratives hold you in their power of accelerated involvement and inevitability.

The accelerant in your own work may turn out to be as simple as the lead character wanting the outcome even sooner than you'd thought. Perhaps the character's wish is for a larger portion of whatever the goal, or the settling of a score so hopelessly unsettled as to cause the other characters in the narrative to think of it as quixotic.

Although you do not strive for the kinds of humor associated with the more physical, slip-on-a-banana-peel aspects of comedy, rather instead with the overall notion of the universe itself being a part of a large, anomalous joke, you tend to gravitate toward characters like Wile E. coyote, who appear fortunate if they can manage to avoid for a few moments the latest in a series of humiliations.

You look for an accelerant, some kerosene or petrol to throw on the fire that has just come to life through some miscalculation or some more spontaneous combustion. You want the fire to speed up. From this comes the voice and the humor you seek.

Humor is tragedy, speeded up.

The Fates have tossed a match into the wastebasket.

The Muses have caused a fire in the kitchen.

The sorcerer's apprentice has underestimated his ability.

There is the chaos about you of your own characters, running from the cover you thought to provide them.

Friday, March 24, 2017


For the thirty-four years you taught courses there, you expected to arrive at the University of Southern California when you set forth from your point of departure somewhere to the north, in Santa Barbara.

You expected--and were overwhelming in your success--to arrive at five other destinations where you taught, as well as the various writers conferences in which you participated as a workshop leader or speaker.

Since all these destinations are associated in some way with writing, they seem for your purpose here a splendid and emphatic example of destination as an anticipated point of arrival. In turn, these examples also set in motion the concepts of departure and anticipation as necessary conditions to arrival.

A process begins when an individual such as yourself departs from a particular location. The individual is purposefully leaving Point A. Thus you at ages nine, ten, eleven, increasingly leaving Point A, which can also be seen as either home, a classroom, or some public park, with the specific destination of a library in mind.

The motivations for your departure with that destination in mind were cocktails of curiosity and boredom. The destination much more often than not provided ample remedy for the boredom, sated the curiosity to some degree, or quite possibly triggered it to even greater intensity.

A significant side effect of your earlier departures and arrivals is the person you became and now are, by profession a writer, editor, and teacher. To this day, in service of boredom and curiosity, you continue to arrive at libraries; you also arrive at bookstores and send forth electronic departures to other bookstores, newspapers, and journals. 

Often when you sit in your present dwelling, you are literally and figuratively up to your ass in books, magazines, and journals. Were you to sit on the floor, as you on occasion do, you'd as well be in over your head with books.

In your capacities as writer, editor, and teacher, your activities often involve a departure from a known or measured condition, thus a start of a journey toward an outcome or arrival. Either you, yourself, a client, or a number of students board a particular conveyance. All aboard.

The destination is the tricky part. You came upon this discovery some years back when you began to notice how, in relative terms, it is easier [for you] to begin a story than it is to end or resolve it. Somewhere along the way, you began to equate endings with punchlines of jokes. No laughter, ineffective story or punchline. But then you began to see. You didn't want that kind of a punchline. And. You were not at all adverse to laughter, but such as there was should come within. You don't want punchlines for endings; you want a sense of arrival at a destination.

All along, the reader is on track to reach a destination, but not the most anticipated one. Were you to drive to Los Angeles these days, you'd be horrified to discover force of habit had taken you to the University of Southern California.  Were you to drive to Los Angeles these days, you'd be happier to discover you'd arrived at 12224 Ventura Boulevard, Studio City, which happens to be Art's Delicatessen and Restaurant.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Word with You

"The right word," your literary ideal was wont to say, "not its second cousin." He also spoke of the vast difference between the lightning bug and lightning. It was also he who said he wished to be in Kentucky when the end of the world came about because Kentucky was always twenty years behind the times.

You admire Mark Twain for his specificity in word choice, but even more admiration comes forth from his way of squeezing humor from the precise, most effective order of placement of those specific words. His goal of specificity led you to collecting and browsing dictionaries as though they were novels and short stories.

In later years, you took up with a writer of your generation, pleased with yourself and simultaneously envious of this slightly younger than you Philip Roth. You became fascinated with his character Lonoff, the writer, who spoke to another character, arguably Roth's alter ego, Zuckerman. Lonoff, likely modeled after Bernard Malamud, spoke of pushing words around, perhaps gaining an acceptable sentence for a day's work.

You had (and still have) little patience for John Updike (a year and a day older than Roth); who was indeed able to bleed on the page as indeed Twain's and Roth's characters did, but there was a difference. When Twain's and Roth's (and certainly Malamud's ) characters bled, the blood had the qualities of the pre-Cambrian Sea, as does the blood of most of us. When Updike's characters bleed, there is no pre-Cambrian Sea, rather a Coca-Cola.

For the longest time, you sought to drive your stories through the force of the words themselves, seeking moral, philosophical, and even intellectual depths. But, alas, these depths, even if achieved, are the depths of description. They lack the inclusion of evocation or, as some would call it, subtext.

Close, but no cigar, as they say.

You believe this: The right word does not call attention to itself. The right word has no ambition of becoming a lightning bug or in any sense a peer of the realm of literary royalty. The right word is more like Shakespeare's observation of the poor player who struts and frets his moment on the stage, then is heard no more.

The right word reminds you of many of the English actors you so admire, persons of differing ages and origins, products of rigorous acting discipline, whose names you have to look up even while admiring their superb skills (Nicola Walker comes to mind).

You're chagrined to recall how, well over ten years ago, you devoted significant class time to demonstrate how one wrong word can produce the distraction that throws the reader out of the story. This brings to you the metaphor of boarding the southbound train here in Santa Barbara, your destination that enormous urban sprawl of your origins, Los Angeles.

Indeed, some one is waiting for you in Los Angeles for a specific purpose.

Whether you recognize it or not, each time you commit to reading a story or novel, watching a play or film, you are boarding a vehicle with an embedded destination.

The effect you're talking about in relation to right and wrong words in story is of a piece with you boarding a train in Santa Barbara with a Los Angeles destination. But suppose a group of conductors approach you directly after the train has stopped at the Burbank Airport, then forcibly escorted you from the train.

You are inordinately fond of the reviews and novels of the Irish writer, John Banville, even though your interests in him are more for his judgment and vocabulary than his storytelling. You frequently find words in his novels that cause you to consult your American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language. You even feel the envy that Banville is able to use such words in his texts while you are not.

The point of these paragraphs: We don't read for words, we read for story. We don't read for the stops made by the local train, we read for the express. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


The news from your publisher that he wishes a revised edition of your Fiction Writers' Handbook sent you scurrying to an index card storage box in which you'd begun adding additional terms and concepts, should such a request come forth.

The first edition contains over three hundred seventy terms, a significant enough number, you suppose, to have distracted you from a necessary-but-uncomfortable realization. In a practical sense, your book is an annotated checklist of things you visit in one way or another each time you compose fiction. 

When you were in the midst of a weekly book review column that arced over five years, you arrived at the conclusion that your revisions of a given essay had no numerical parameters, only that you should read, reread, tweak, and revise until you were prompted to add some observation or fact that either surprised you with its energy, caused you the pleasure of discovery, or a combination of the two.

Handbook is an alphabetical arrangement of terms and concepts. You've begun your revision at the letter A, for which you've a number of additions and a term or two you're debating about removing. Arena is a term already in place. Your rereading of it suggests you've discovered yet another thing about the word which, under ordinary circumstances relates to a local where a battle or contest is engaged between rival sides.

But why stop there, your more advanced self asks of your earlier contribution. In its way, the locale for a scene is as important as the scene itself. Although you agree with your younger self that an arena is an appropriate way for you to consider setting, you want that extra touch whereby every setting is not only an arena, the setting has some quality amounting to a personality. 

The setting is never neutral; it is in some measure an atmosphere in which one or more of your characters will become so uncomfortable that his or her participation in the scene is changed.

The setting can impress its arena-like qualities upon the suffering character, who would be better able to enjoy or cope within the dramatic requirements of the scene. The character can become overwhelmed with nostalgia for an event at a similar arena, or angered, or distracted.

For the same reason details and descriptions must be inspected against frivolity, arenas must be chosen to have some impact on the protagonist and possibly even some sense of home court advantage for the antagonist.

No one gets out of the arena unaffected. If you remember this, you'll have in mind the dramatic need for an enhanced tightening of the chain of circumstances advancing upon the principal character the way a coven of marauding crows advances on a picnic.

If you push this with too much emphasis, your principal character will spend as much time disliking the setting as pursuing an agenda. The astute reader will notice and begin to lose empathy and identity for the principal character. But the character's awareness of the unfriendliness of the setting, however internalized, will have an effect on the outcome, which is precisely what the character does not wish, but remains what the writer wants--and the reader expects.

Net neutrality--yes. Dramatic neutrality, an emphatic no. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Authorial Flagging

You can see the inherent good sense and logic behind the rhetorical question most writers of fiction must face: "Whose story is it?" Good sense and logic in place, nevertheless you find the occasional glitch in your early drafts of a composition. Someone other than the main character, the Jane of Jane Eyre, the Huck of Huckleberry Finn, the Jim Burden of My Antonia, has overstepped the boundary of point of view, and you must repair.

The repair becomes a metaphor linking roadwork and paving to the narrative drive of storytelling. You've come to accept the view that all dramatic information must come from the character of choice, the protagonist, if you will, or the ironic reversal in which the antagonist is made the filter to comment upon and react to the agenda and behavior of the protagonist.

In no case must the information come from you as author, hence the reason for and title of these paragraphs--Authorial Flagging.

The repair work you do on your own work is the equivalent of you driving to a familiar destination and on occasion failing to respond to familiar landmarks or becoming abstracted to the point of forgetting entirely the destination. Each of these occasional areas causes a momentary sense of disorientation.

Under similar circumstances translated to the act of reading, the reader becomes disoriented, suddenly divorced from the familiarity of destination. Under proper circumstances, the reader is made aware early on of the potentials landscape for the destination, even if said destination is, shall we say, Chekhovian, thus left in some degree for the reader to resolve off stage.

Your equivalent of repair is resurfacing the surface of narrative so that the bumps you intend the characters to experience are seen by the characters, not by you. When the speed bumps are put in place by you--in any form--they become Authorial Flagging.

Some brief examples of authorial flagging:

It was hot.
She was frightened.
He was hungry.
She didn't know what to do next.
Just then...
At that moment...
Later that day...
He didn't see...
She couldn't hear...

You're alert to reading the expressions of students in your classes when you present this information, which often comes when you're discussing and/or examining the concept of point of view.  Presented in the abstract, you see nods of assent, young, middle aged, and elderly emerging writers, reaching for and grasping the essentials of narration.

Back in the day, you tell them, there was a form of narrative referred to variously as the omniscient point of view or authorial presence. Now, twenty-first century, the characters have staged an intervention. They've demanded and in large measure been given the entire burden of story to convey to the reader.

You like to equate narrative styles to determining the age of trees from the rings apparent in a cross section of the tree. True enough, in order to do so, you must cut down the tree. In doing so, you are then face-to-face with a record of that tree's growth and experiences.

Now you, as storyteller, put a character in place to read that record and interpret the life and times of the tree. If you were to step in with such examples of authorial flagging as those listed above, or yet others, you'd in effect be reverting to the you who was reading earlier records from previously hewn trees.

Tempting as it may be, Authorial Flagging is also a step or two backward in time, to those moments where you were when, whatever your reasons for wishing to turn to composing your own narratives, you were influenced by other tree ring segments to the point where you heard yourself saying, "I wish to do that. I wish to interpret the lives of individuals I invent."

Monday, March 20, 2017


When you begin constructing a character, you begin by visualizing a physical entity best known as an armature, the framework supporting a sculpting or the base for a coil which becomes part of the electric motor.

You gravitate toward the electric motor comparison because of the way it reminds you that armatures participate in the production of energy as well as the support of a larger, outer assembly. Next step is to remind yourself of the character's primary goal, which becomes the energy source for the character in process.

Only then do you skim through the individuals you've sorted away in your memory, classified by the type and degree of emotional impact they've had on you. Now, you're ready to begin wrapping the wire of coil about the armature, each round of wrapping representing feelings such as attraction, revulsion, curiosity, fear, intrigue, hunger, excitement.

The armature process has helped you visualize and bring to some form of integrity your ensemble of characters for a story. The process works well with the production of all levels of characters because, to use your oft repeated analogy, even the person who delivers the ordered-on-line or phone ordered pizza wants--or should want--something. More often than not, a tip, but in one venture on which you collaborated with your great pal, Digby Wolf, a pizza delivery person could be after an audition as an actor, thus makes his or her only appearance to an audience where a producer or director is present.

The individual who drives the story with his or her goal or quest, the protagonist, does things in service of that goal or quest, sending ripples and shock waves through the various cultures of the other persons nearby. This individual is properly thought of as the protagonist--he or she who sets the story in motion.

Protagonists must be agreeable--in one way or another--monomaniacs, which gets directly to the point of saying a protagonist needs to be more devoted to the goal or outcome than to being a social individual. Such characters have quirks. Ishmael's quirk in fact drove him to recognize the need to sign on the Pequod as a means of getting away from urban and conventional stresses. Without his quirk, which we now recognize as bipolarity, there would be no story. 

Ahab's choice of the Pequod was an enhancement, even though it was accidental. Without the Pequod, the story would have been entirely different if indeed evident at all. Man takes to the sea to escape a return of the familiar affliction of depression. In signing on, Ishmael has signed on to eternal fame as protagonist of one of America's most riveting and influential narratives. Ishmael, in seeking to evade his personal nemesis, has literally and figuratively signed on to an even greater nemesis, Captain Ahab, the unthinkable for Ishmael and the reader, coming to pass.

The Protagonist needs an opposite number, thus an entirely different armature about which to begin winding character traits. The opposite number of the character whose goal or quest propels the story is the aptly named Antagonist, anti- against. You join the clamor shouting toward the notion that the days are long past where Protagonist must of conventional necessity stand apart as all good in the way, say, of Sir Galahad. The equation--and your purpose--continue: The Antagonist must not be evil for its own sake nor, as a matter of fact, evil at all.

Rather, the Antagonist must be a person whose goals, because of ethical, personal, and cultural considerations, run contrary to the Protagonist's agenda. Thus, two forces fighting one another the same way law students take opposing sides of legal issues in moot court argumentative competitions. Readers will supply the judgments; no two readers will of necessity supply the same judgments.

The Protagonist needs one or more Antagonists to make a story from a mere narrative. Enter you, with your belief that the more memorable Protagonists have their on stage Antagonists, Ishmael, for instance, having Captain Ahab, Hamlet having his Uncle, King Claudius. These memorable inventions, these wrappings about an armature, also have their inner Antagonists. Not to be outdone--indeed, they should not be--the Antagonists have their inner Protagonists.

Simply put for example, Ishmael has his outer Ahab and his inner Ahab; Ahab has his outer Ishmael AND his inner.

This inner-outer equation helps form an outcome closer in appearance to real persons. In the bargain, this inner-outer binary for all characters provides us a study guide for those relatively small matters that step forth around two or three of a morning, seeming quite large to the point of not allowing much in the way of sleep to progress.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


At the risk of causing dramatic and structural peril to your story, don't underestimate the portmanteau significance of this three-letter word.

In its robust presence as a verb, act conveys the intent of a character to behave with enough conviction and authenticity to convince others of sincere intent. Thus a narrator, telling a story--"Call me Ishmael," may emerge as reliable.

Thanks to the potentials of your imagination, act may also convey a character who is sincere yet lacking the experience and emotional vocabulary associated with reliable adults. Such a character is seen as reliable but also naive.

Experienced readers are quick to question the motives of characters who appear to act too sincere or concerned, possibly carrying over such suspicions into Real Time.

Act also resonates in its noun form, where it becomes a segment of a drama, contributing to the movement or arc of story across the sky of narrative. Act also becomes the file folder for a range of activities leading to the discovery, "It was only an act," meaning a subterfuge or pretense.

At one time the actor, or one who acts or performs, was also called a player, as in one who played a role, or portrayed another individual. Back in times when fewer individuals were able to read written texts, some players took the part of gods and goddesses, wearing stylized masks. Such players were often loaded into baskets, then lowered by winch onto the stage, where they would step forth to bring about the resolution of the story at hand. From this concept of god in a basket came the term deus ex machina, literally god in a machine, dealing out resolutions that took the action away from the human characters.

Sometimes a few moments of meditation on the verb/noun aspects of this simple word remind us in unexpected ways of the energy present within each character in each successful story, how that energy is put to use, and how it is seen by the other characters and,most important of all, by the reader.